The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that the Iowa Civil Rights Act is broad enough to protect people with disabilities that are incapacitating only on occasion.
On the same day that the Court issued an opinion saying that Palmer College of Chiropractic violated both federal and state law by refusing to provide readers for blind students, the court also held that a Polk County man with multiple sclerosis deserves a jury trial to determine whether he was improperly fired after asking Schwan's Home Service Inc. to help him perform his job when he suffered seizures.
In the Palmer College of Chiropractic case, the court ruled 5-2 that a district court erred when it overturned a ruling by the Davenport Civil Rights Commission that held the college violated Aaron Cannon's rights under state and federal law by failing to provide him with a sighted reader. The college has required that chiropractic students possess sight.
Also in a 5-2 decision, the court held that John Goodpaster deserves to have a jury hear his claim that he was fired by Schwan's Home Service in retaliation for asking to have a driver accompany him on a food delivery route in case he suffered a "flare-up" of symptoms from multiple sclerosis.
The case had been dismissed on a summary judgment ruling after Schwan's Home Service argued that multiple sclerosis was not a disability under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
Federal courts have increasingly narrowed the definition of disability under federal law, which was amended in 2009 to include multiple sclerosis.
However, the Iowa court held that state law is already enough to at least consider the individual circumstances of people whose disabilities are episodic in nature. Goodpaster said that during his seizures, his vision would become impaired and he would lose feeling in his legs.
At one point when he asked for someone to drive his delivery truck back to the Schwan's Home Service office in Des Moines, he was told to "gut it out," according to the court case.
The court held that the Polk County judge erred in granting Schwan's Home Service's motion for summary judgment. Instead, Goodpaster has a right under Iowa law to have a jury hear the facts of his allegations, the court ruled.
Jill Zwagerman, one of two attorneys from the Newkirk Zwagerman Law Firm who represented Goodpaster, said the ruling is significant in that it indicates that the Iowa Supreme Court is turning away from narrow federal rulings regarding workers with disabilities that might not leave them unable to work.
The Iowa Supreme Court has "taken a step in the right direction by recognizing that a disease might to be disabling 100 percent of the time," she said.
Goodpaster has worked as a laborer and launched a painting business after losing his job at Schwan's Home Service.
Nola Cartmill, a litigator and employment law specialist with Belin McCormick P.C., said both rulings appear to indicate that the court is telling employers and institutions that they could be required to hire two people to do the same job, when one of the employees has a disability.
"If an employee asks someone to perform an essential function of their job, that is not a reasonable accommodation," she said. "If employers might have to hire two people to do the same job, that's obviously a devastating blow to employers."
Attorneys representing employers in disability cases routinely file motions to have cases dismissed under the reasonable accommodation provision. In the past, those motions have been routinely granted, Cartmill and Zwagerman said.
That might no longer be the case in Iowa.